Yesterday was decorating day at our house. We pulled down the tree from the from the upstairs closet where it resides; we put it all together we hung the ornaments on it. We are a one tree family. Maybe there is someone here who has more than one tree or maybe someone who has a tree that's all decorated according to a single theme. When I was growing up we had these wonderful ornaments my grandmother would needlepoint for us, and one year, my mother decided these these ornaments were so distinctive and so special that they deserved their own special tree. She took a small tabletop tree and that's where we hung my grandmother's handmade ornaments.
I remember also many years afterwards going to the Biltmore house in Asheville North Carolina - which took the idea of a theme tree to another level entirely. The Biltmore house was at one time the largest private residence in all of America; it belonged to the Vanderbilt family, and now it's kind of a museum and tourist site, and Christmas is when they really do it up right. Every room has these 12 or 15 foot trees. One tree will be the blue tree and will have all these different ornaments and lights with everything on a particular theme. Another tree will all be toy themed, it's all unlike anything I had ever seen. And as I was reading this passage from Isaiah this week I just couldn't help but thinking what would it be like if Isaiah had theme tree...
That would be the most metal Christmas tree ever made.
Lord I know that you would come down you would tear the heavens open
So we've got storms - maybe we got we had clouds and thunder and lightning, it seems like the world is falling apart above us.
When you come down the mountains quake
Wouldn't that be a nice needlepoint scene - earthquakes and mountains crumbling into the sea, swallowed up in the ground.
Our righteousness is like a menstrual rag...
That's some pretty intense tinsel.
And then, I imagine the tree topper comes from the image at the end of Isaiah's prophecy:
our house, our glorious house is destroyed in fire
I have an image of just a tower sitting on top of the tree with cellophane flames crackling all around it.
Merry Christmas everybody!
Isaiah is the great prophet of preparation - we we quote him all the time during the season of Advent, and we oftentimes use the more hopeful parts of the put the passages from Isaiah. In other years as we get ready for Advent, we hear from the parts were Isaiah tells us that we are awaiting one who will be called by the Wonderful counselor, Almighty God, everlasting Father the Prince of peace.
But in today's passage, Isaiah's preparation looks very different, Isaiah prepares us for the savior by reminding us that everything is not ok. This is so different than how we usually prepare for Christmas - we usually prepare by trying to make everything look as if it is the most OK it has ever been!
I'm not casting stones here; I'm looking at myself on this one. I think that my house is going to be ready for Christmas there's a place for everything and everything is in its place. I feel like my house is ready for Christmas when it is ready for guests to come and be astounded and amazing to think that it is perfectly on point the garland is in the right spot, the Christmas tree has all the lights on carefully and perfectly. That's when I am ready for Christmas, but Isaiah says "We are ready, Lord, because we are falling apart. We are ready for you, and we know that we are ready because the world is going up in flames! We need you so badly that even if you cause an earthquake we are okay with it - just please, Lord, come quickly! Come and make this place your home.
We often tell the story around the time of Christmas about how it was that Jesus came into the world, and the world wasn't ready for him. We hear all the stories - how his parents go to the city of Bethlehem, and they find that there is no room for them in the inn or the guesthouse, or however you want to translate it - there's no spot for them in Bethlehem. We tell how wise men come to King Herod and say "Where is this new King and Savior that is born?" and King Herod is not ready. Herod sends them on as as his spies because he wants to do away with this new threat. And we seem to think that our job every Chrsitmas is to prove that we are not making the same mistake. We think we're gonna get it right. We think there's no way we would ever miss Jesus, we're gonna roll out the purple carpet; we'll have everything ready for you Jesus. We will build a picture-perfect scene where the only thing missing is that baby in the manger, and then when he comes softly, slowly, backlit as he floats down from heaven - Jesus will find a softlanding because we madewe lined the manger with the softest, pest-free synthetic hay. We aren't like those first century failures. We will be ready.
But Isaiah keeps saying the best way to be ready is to know how unready we are. The best way to be ready is to know how badly we need a Savior. But we spend most of our Advent trying to prove our home doesn't need one.
In Isaiah's time, Jerusalem was the spiritual home of the people of Israel. At least once a year, all the people of Israel expected to go up to Jerusalem — and that's how they always refer to it, "We are going up to Jerusalem." In the Hebrew language, Jerusalem had such an exalted place in people's minds but it was always up. No matter if you're coming from the north or from the south, or the east of the west - you still have to go "up" to get to Jerusalem. It didn't matter if you lived in the high lands on top of a mountain that was much higher than the Mount Zion where the Temple was built — you are still going "up."
But Isaiah looks up and he says our holy house, the temple on that mountain, is in ruins; it is burned with fire. Isaiah says we can't go up there anymore, and even if we do, there's nothing for us. And so, and now Isaiah says "Lord, oh that you would come down! Oh that you would tear open the heavens! We've given up on getting up there to you God; our only hope is for you to come down. We are not going to be ready for you.
The book of John gives us the the explanation of Christmas that is going to drive our next several weeks of this sermon series on the meaning of home. John tells us in chapter 1 that in Jesus Christ, "the Word became flesh and he made his home among us." We can't go up to him, so he made his home among us.
John thengoes on to say that "Christ came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." It used to be when I read that passage, that I thought it meant most people just hated Jesus. They though they were better off without him. But the longer I live, and the more I talk to people about their faith and their struggles, the more I come to discover that for at least as many peoplae as there are who reject Jesus outright, there is an equal number who won't receive him because they think they're not ready.
"Oh Jesus, I would love for you to come by, let's break bread together! Just gimme couple weeks - I'm going to get my home together, get all the decorations in the right place. If we are going to do this, we are going to do it up right!" Jesus is knocking, and we save, "Give me just a moment." But the moment becomes two weeks, and then a month, and Jesus is still at the door, and we are still tidying up. The old spiritual says "Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray." But we say "Lord I'm just not in a good place for prayer right now. It's a little too chaotic around me right now. But I tell you what, tomorrow morning I'm going to get up really early, when it's nice and quiet and it will be just you and me. Jesus keeps knocking, the morning comes, and it's busier than we expected. Before we know it, our lives have fallen into CHAOS. You know what CHAOS is right? Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome.
CHAOS is you have such a lofty picture of what you ought to be presenting to other people or to Jesus that your big and beautiful vision becomes the reason that you're never ready.
Jennifer and I once had the unique experience of living in a parsonage, which is always a tricky thing as a pastor. You are living in a house, and everybody tells you to make yourself at home. The church owns it, but they tell you to live in it it as if it was yours, and they are lying. Someone knock on the door, they just want to ask a question but you see them looking over the shoulder, seeing what you've done with the place. It's an intimidating thing; it was especially intimidating at that church becausethe woman who was in charge of the parsonage committee was known throughout town for keeping the neatest, most beautiful home in all the city. But she gave us an amazing gift when she first met us. It was a bit of pastoral care advice as well as a bit of a relief from the burden about the home that we lived in.
She told us 'Preacher here's what you need to understand. If you're coming to visit me, you can drop in anytime. If you're coming to see my house, I need three days' notice. And I promise you, if I am at your house unexpectedly is because I want to see you, not your house.
Which one do you think Jesus from you? When Jesus says he wants to dwell with us, he'll take care of making the house. What he wants is to be with you. He came down to make his home in the middle of our mess because he knows the mess is the reason we need him.
In our own day and time our homes have replaced Jerusalem is the place a great pilgrimage. Some of you right now are planning for the pilgrimage you are going to make the hometown, to the parent's house, to the auntie and uncles - wherever it is you're going. Some of you are preparing for someone to make a pilgrimage back to your house. You're worried about whether everything will go just right; will it go as smoothly as the plan; is the food going to be all out at the same time; will it all be just as hot as it needs to be will I have every single decoration in the right spot to remind everyone of all those wonderful memories that we want.
And yet you know at the core of your being that when you're in the middle of it, the house will become a home when you are no longer paying attention to the things on the walls, or the temperature of the food, or the timetable you set for your perfect celebration. You know you are ready when you are able to receive the person who is right in front of you, and they are ready to receive you and you share with one another something more than just the pleasantries - when you share the fullness of your life, the back-and-forth, the good and bad. You share your hopes and your disappointments. that's what makes the house a home.
Our lives are no different for Christ. Jesus is not waiting you to get it all figured out, to have it all picture-perfect. Christ is already ready for you. And we get ready for Christmas simply by unlocking the door. If this morning you don't even know what you need to be ready for Christmas, then hear the good news: you're really ready.
Maybe the most faithful prayer you can pray on this first Sunday of Advent is to start at the very beginning. "God I don't even know what to pray for. Lord, come down. When we are ready to pray like that, then we are really ready for Jesus. And when Jesus comes it will be a glorious surprise to discover what sort of place and what sort of heart he can make into a home.